Nine in 10 smokers start before they are 18 years old, warns WHO

29 May 2020

Tobacco products continue to kill eight million people a year who get hooked via a $9 billion a year marketing strategy. That’s the warning from the UN World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday, which has said that even during a global pandemic, the tobacco and nicotine industry has continued to promote products that limit people’s ability to fight new coronavirus and recover from the disease.

For this year’s World No Tobacco Day – marked on 31 May – the agency is focusing on protecting teenagers, who are a key target sector. More than 40 million young people today aged 13-15, have already started to use tobacco, it estimates.

Smoking suffocates the lungs and other organs, starving them of the oxygen they need to develop and function properly, the WHO warned in a statement.

“Educating youth is vital because nearly nine out of 10 smokers start before age 18. We want to provide young people with the knowledge to speak out against tobacco industry manipulation”, said Ruediger Krech, Director for Health Promotion at WHO.

In a bid to help prevent addiction among 13-17-year-olds, the agency has highlighted commonly used tactics to watch out for.

E-cigarettes are harmful

It points out that smoking e-cigarettes and hookah pipes – marketed as “safer” alternatives to conventional cigarettes - is harmful, addictive, and increases the risk of developing heart and lung disease.

The WHO also notes that most of the 15,000 flavours on offer – such as bubble-gum and candy - are there to attract youngsters who at least double their chance of smoking cigarettes later in life.

Other marketing strategies during the COVID-19 have included the offer of free branded masks and a home delivery service during quarantine.

The tobacco industry has also lobbied for its products to be listed as “essential”, the health agency noted.

And in its call to all sectors, including film studios, to keep children and young people out of the industry’s reach, the WHO points out that the streamed hit youth series, Stranger Things, has almost twice the number of tobacco product placements (182) than cult tv show, The Walking Dead.

WHO calls on all young people to join the fight to become a tobacco-free generation.

#TobaccoExposed quiz

To reach more young people and amplify its message, WHO has also launched the #TobaccoExposed challenge on popular youth online platform TikTok, and welcomed social media partnerships with other platforms including Pinterest and YouTube.

WHO has also launched a classroom activities kit that puts the students in the shoes of the tobacco industry to make them aware of how the industry tries to manipulate them into using their products.

For more information on where to find the school kit, go to and search for World No Tobacco Day.


♦ Receive daily updates directly in your inbox - Subscribe here to a topic.
♦ Download the UN News app for your iOS or Android devices.

News Tracker: Past Stories on This Issue

Smoking and drinking link to recreational drug use by young people: UN-backed report

The use of alcohol and tobacco by young people and children is closely linked to the use of illicit drugs, a UN-backed narcotics control body warned on Thursday.

‘Not a single country’ does enough to help children flourish, say health experts

The world’s survival depends on children being able to flourish, but no country is doing enough to give them a sustainable future, dozens of highly respected international health experts said on Wednesday.